See also Encounter Magazine's comprehensive guide on Hiking
in South Africa.
An absolute magic hike of 280 km, taking approximately 25 days to complete the full trail, open-ended. The trail is divided into five 3-6 day sections. Permits are required from the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Nature Conservation Section, PO Box X5002, Umtata 5100. Bookings are accepted up to 11 months in advance.
There are huts accommodating 12 people, with water, bunks and mattresses, tables and benches, and fireplaces, en route you will get hotels, nature reserves with accommodation, hamlets, small trading stores, and clusters of private cottages, fishermen's tracks run from the main road to the coast; cars can be left at the trail heads, and local buses or taxis transport you back to your starting point.
One of Africa's most dramatic and beautiful coastlines, with sandy and rocky beaches, coves, lagoons, cliffs, rock formations in the sea, and mangrove swamps, intertidal life and birdlife, and fishing.
All hiking must start at the trail heads and proceed south. Groups are limited to a maximum of 12 people. Allways carry your permits and a tide table. Always carry water, and do not drink from rivers and estuaries without first boiling or purifying the water. Roads can be extremely difficult to negotiate after heavy rains.
Ticks can be a problem. Theft from campers is not uncommon. Be warned: estuaries host sharks. Never cross an estuary at the mouth during an outgoing tide.
The Wild Coast, riddled with the well-worn footpaths of both livestock and people, is not wild through lack of human settlement - on the contrary, Xhosa villages dot the hillsides all along the coast from Port St Johns southwards. Its reputation stems rather from the numerous ships and lives that have been claimed along the dangerous coastline.
The region explored by coastal hikers lies between the Umtamvuna River (Port Edward) and the Great Kei River, with the most popular stretches being between Port Edward and Port St Johns (approximately 110 km), and Port St Johns and Hole-in-the-Wall (approximately 170 km).
The former area, the less-populated Pondoland Wild Coast, is rugged, with sensational coastal rock formations and deeply incised river gorges. The latter stretch, on the other hand, provides a much gentler terrain, mangrove swamps, lovely scenery and more settlements.
A marked hiking trail runs along the entire stretch of coast, with accommodation in traditional Xhosa-style huts provided at intervals. The 5-day stretch from Port St Johns to Coffee Bay (approx. 100km) was completed in 1983. Camps along the route are located at 12-km intervals at Silaka Nature Reserve, Mngazana, Mpande, Hluleka Nature Reserve, Ngcibe and Coffee Bay.
The second part, opened in late 1985, runs from Coffee Bay to Cwebe Nature Reserve at the mouth of the Bashee (Mbashe) River (Bomvanaland) with huts at Coffee Bay, Mhlahlane, Manzimnyama (Mbiza), Xora and the Bashee River mouth.
It takes 4 days to walk. (Note that 2 sets of huts exist in the caravan park at Coffee Bay; one is for hikers finishing the walk from Port St Johns, the other for those starting the walk to Bashee. There are also huts at Bashee for those who wish to stay over on completion of the latter trail. These are less than a kilometre from the hotel.)
Sections of trail opened subsequently are, from north to south, the 3-day stretch from Mtamvuna near Port Edward to Msikaba River, with camps at Mtentu and Msikaba; a 6-day hike from Msikaba River to Agate Terrace (Port St Johns), with camps at Port Grosvenor, Lupatana, Mbotyi and elsewhere; and 5 days from Nqabara Estuary (the southern border of the Dwesa Nature Reserve) to north of the Great Kei River at Qolora Mouth, with overnight stops at Nqabara Point, Shixini Estuary, Mazeppa Point, Cebe and Kobonqaba.
If you get lost and cannot find the markers on the trail, stay close to the coast and ask the locals for directions to stores, river mouths and beaches. They are very helpful and will lead you on the often perplexing network of paths through the thick indigenous bush.
Some noteworthy features of the coast from Port Edward south to Port St Johns include fossil beds visible at low tide near the Mzamba River; narrow stretches of creamy beaches south of Port Edward; the rare endemic Pondoland palm (also known as Pondoland coconut) on the north banks of the Mtentu and Msikaba rivers; Waterfall Bluff, a sensational waterfall where you can walk between the waters plummeting directly into the sea, and the cliff; the picturesque Mamba Pools, behind Waterfall Bluff, Cathedral Rock and the Castle.
The latter are two of the most unusual erosional features in the sea that you are likely to come across; and Mfihlelo Falls, an approximately 160-m waterfall flowing directly into the ocean - it is reputed to be the highest of its kind in Africa.
Further south, between Port St Johns and Hole-in-the-Wall, there is the fascinating Table Mountain sandstone cliffs of Port St Johns; the very lovely Mpande Bay; the extensive dolerite intrusion named Brazen Head, south of Mngazana; Hluleka, a nature reserve with plenty of waterfowl on the river; the resort at Coffee Bay; and a bit farther south, the famous Hole-in-the-Wall, where a deep rumbling sound is caused by heavy surf further eroding the weathered-out hole. All along the coast, tidal estuaries are fringed by one of the world's most valuable ecosystems, the mangrove swamps.
In Transkei the mangroves reach their southern limit of tolerance, and this is borne out by patchy stands of trees which may be of a single species. Other vegetation zones along the Wild Coast include coastal grasslands which have a lawn-like appearance as a result of heavy grazing by domesticated stock. Valley bushveld occurs in the larger river valleys, along with coastal forest, including dune and swamp forests.
For the less adventurous hiker wishing to overnight where specific facilities exist, there are three nature reserves:
Mkambati (with a lodge, camping areas and a riverside complex sleeping 20, canoeing and horse-riding), north of Port St Johns between the Msikaba and Mtentu rivers, contains the Pondoland palm.
Birdlife is plentiful; the rare Cape vulture nests here on the cliffs above the Msikaba River.
Hluleka, 30 km south of Port St Johns, offers fully furnished log cabins, each accommodating 6 to 8 people. Self-guided walks are available through pristine evergreen forest.
At Dwesa, south of Coffee Bay, rustic log cabins that blend well with the forest environment can be rented, and hikers can also camp. This is a particularly lovely reserve, comprising a large indigenous forest, rolling coastal grasslands, rivers and estuaries.
Mammals that can be seen here include eland, blesbok, buffalo, hartebeest, warthog, blue and grey duiker, bushbuck and rhino. Dwesa is worth visiting even if you terminate your hiking tour at Hole-in-the-Wall, and there are many interesting paths within the reserve for day rambles. Guided walks are provided to the game areas.